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Petraeus Expected to Urge Troop Strength Freeze

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The situation on Iraq will be front and center on Capitol Hill tomorrow. General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, begin two days of testimony.

Petraeus is expected to recommend halting troop withdrawals after July that would leave about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

NPR defense correspondent Guy Raz has this preview of the issues that are likely to come up during tomorrow's testimony.

GUY RAZ: There is no single and undisputed narrative for Iraq in 2008. Even the facts are interpreted differently, so, for example, there's this fact: this year, overall levels of violence in Iraq are roughly where they were in 2004. What that means is open for debate. Here's the president's take.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The surge is working. I know some don't want to admit, then I understand, but the terrorists understand the surge is working.

RAZ: Gen. Petraeus is a little more circumspect. Here he is in a recent interview on NPR.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commanding General, Multi National Force in Iraq): There has been significant further progress in the security arena, although I will also say that that progress remains tenuous, it's reversible.

RAZ: Which is why Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi political activist and critic of the war, believes the violence will eventually continue.

Mr. RAED JARRAR (Iraqi Political Activist): What happened is that violence dropped in Iraq, not because the reasons of violence were dealt with, not because the problems were solved, but because all of these things were postponed to a near future.

RAZ: And according to Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, that future will be as bloody as the past. The surge, he says, is merely a band-aid.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Senate Armed Services Committee): The surge did contribute to a reduction in violence, but the purpose of that surge was not achieved.

RAZ: Now, none of the views you've just heard are universally accepted. They're pieces of the debate over Iraq. Most Americans now tell pollsters they want the Iraq problem to go away. But the people who make or influence national security decisions, both critics and supporters of the Bush administration, well, they believe it's not so simple.

Here's a recent NPR interview with Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. MICHAEL MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chief of Staff): I think we're in Iraq for years, not months. I think our presence there will be required for a significant period of time.

RAZ: That's not so different from what Paul Hughes says. He's a retired Army colonel, a senior adviser to the Iraq study group, and a fierce critic of the Bush administration.

Colonel PAUL HUGHES (Retired, U.S. Army): We are going to be engaged in Iraq for many, many years. If it's not through the military, we certainly will be engaged diplomatically and economically.

RAZ: And when Anthony Cordesman, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently went to Iraq, Military briefers told him the same thing.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): When you go to Iraq, you see something you often don't see here in Washington, and that is the briefing slides have timelines up to 2012, 2014, 2020.

RAZ: And this notion of a long-term commitment, in some shape or form, is now the guiding principle of how the U.S. military and policymakers here in Washington are approaching the Iraq question.

Mr. DANIEL SERWER (Iraq Expert, U.S. Institute of Peace): The problems fly mainly on the political side today.

RAZ: This is Daniel Serwer with the nonpartisan U.S. Institute of Peace. Serwer, like Iraqi political activist Raed Jarrar, believes much of Petraeus' work may already be done.

Mr. JARRAR: I think, militarily, what's happening now is the maximum of what the U.S. military can do.

RAZ: And so, the question is what more can Petraeus do? Here's Michigan Senator Carl Levin.

Sen. LEVIN: Petraeus' power is not just military and he'd be the first to admit it that the purpose of military power is to produce a political goal. And the political goal here has got to be to force the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own country.

RAZ: Levin has long argued for setting a timetable for a withdrawal. But retired Colonel Paul Hughes says the whole debate over when, and how to leave Iraq is irrelevant, so long as there's no clear U.S. diplomatic strategy.

Col. HUGHES: We can't get out because we haven't taken the proper steps to create the conditions for the withdrawal of the military. The number one obstacle that's holding us back is the current administration's unwillingness to engage in a regional, diplomatic offensive.

RAZ: In other words, Hughes, like many analysts and policymakers here in Washington, now believes the road to solving Iraq doesn't run through Baghdad or Basra or Anbar, it runs through Tehran.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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